Over 300 people crowded into the room to see Makoto Shinkai speak at New York Anime Fest -- but MTV Geek readers get a special audience, because we were able to sit down and chat with him right after the panel.
Shinkai is the director of the critically acclaimed anime Voices of a Distant Star, 5 Centimeters per Second, and most recently, Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, which had its U.S. premiere at NYAF. He was looking forward to visiting Central Park and the Empire State Building on his New York trip, but he took a few minutes to talk to us.
MTV Geek: You were a graphic designer before you started making anime. Did that influence you in any way, either in the way you approach the work, the way you do your work, or the content of the work itself?
Makoto Shinkai: When I was working at the game company, I wasn’t just doing graphic design, I was doing the entire product management, so I would do the graphic design, I would create the advertisements, even the catch copies. I would figure out what kind of packaging and design of the packaging, so I was basically doing total product management at that time. I approach anime work in a similar way: I am thinking about all aspects and how to deliver them to the end user.
MTV Geek: Do you think your unusual background puts you at an advantage or a disadvantage?
Makoto Shinkai: I would like to believe there are a lot of merits I derive from my background, but I feel a little bit of a complex in that I didn't have the traditional background as an anime director. I feel inferior sometimes. But then like today, when I see all those fans getting excited and showing love and appreciation for my work, I feels that it is OK that I didn’t not take the traditional career path as other anime directors and creators have.
MTV Geek: It's one thing to make an anime, another to get people to watch it. I know your first anime, She and Her Cat, won the grand prize at the 2000 DoGA CG Animation contest.. How did you get it to viewers before that?
Makoto Shinkai: I put a promotional video up on the internet and I made a bunch of CDs—at the time it wasn't DVDs, I burned it on a bunch of CDs—and I sold them at Comiket. I sold around 5,000 of them, which is a big number. And then you could order them by mail on my website.
I sold 5,000 so I started getting recognized. At the time, Japan was in kind of an internet bubble period, so I got lots of mail and inquiries from lots of different, weird companies. Some were kind of strange, but I got one letter from Comics Way Films which was a very long e-mail, it reviewed the work and expressed why they liked it and how they liked it and showed a lot of feeling. I met with them and finally agreed to work in their company.
MTV Geek: A lot of anime and manga is about yearning for a lost childhood. Your best known works feature children or young teenagers. Why do you choose them for the center of your stories?
Makoto Shinkai: The reason I use children in my work is that basically manga and anime is something that is for kids and teenagers, but because now this generation has passed, those kids and teenagers have gotten older and they still are reading manga and enjoying anime as well. I think that has created a wide range of anime and manga today, which is quite interesting. But back to your question, the reason I use children as the main characters is basically anime and manga are traditionally for kids.
MTV Geek: Loneliness and isolation seem to emerge as themes in your work, as well as missing connections with others. Why does that interest you?
Makoto Shinkai: When I was growing up, I didn’t have tons and tons of friends. When I was growing up and until I got married, I had some times when I felt a bit lonely and a little bit isolated—even after I got married. Even though I have people I love right beside me, I sometimes feel lonely, and that is part of the reason why this loneliness plays a big part in my life. Maybe if I wasn’t a person like that, I wouldn't have become an animator, and I wouldn’t write about those things.
There’s lots of people who have these same kinds of feelings, I think, even though they are married or have families or lots of friends; sometimes they feel lonely and a little bit introspective. Those kinds of people are watching my work.
MTV Geek: Do you think of your work as for children?
Makoto Shinkai: No. The current movie that is out right now it is not just for children, but I think kids the age of 10 and up can enjoy it. When I made Five Centimeters per Second, I thought that would be enjoyed by people who have graduated college and had a career, in their mid 20s and up, but in fact even junior high school kids really enjoyed it. It's not something you can actually control. I believe it might be this target [audience], but when it gets out there it has a wider range of fans.
MTV Geek: You began with a strong science fiction theme in your work and now it seems to be moving away from that toward fantasy. How are you evolving, and at the end of your career, where do you want to be?
Makoto Shinkai: I started with sort of science fiction, and 5 Centimeters per Second was a real life story. The current movie is more of a fantasy story, but I think there is a main theme or a message throughout so it doesn't matter what the genre is. When I get to the end of my career, I have made a lot of movies and it doesn't matter what the genre is—I was asked today [at the panel] if I could have only one movie I could watch for the rest of my life, what would it be? I said Laputa. I am hoping by the end of my career somebody will get that question and they will name one of my movies.
MTV Geek: How does it feel to come to New York, such a different place from Japan, yet you have such a huge crowd of people who have come to see you and love your movies?
Makoto Shinkai: It feels unbelievable, surreal. It makes me really happy it's kind of difficult to believe. When people came into the room today there were 300, 400 people there I and thought they were just dropping by, like oh, somebody is talking here, might as well get into this line and see what is going on. But then as we went through the panel and I was talking and I could see the people's reaction I started realizing more and more that they actually do know who I am they are very familiar with my work, and that made me really happy.
When I made Voices of a Distant Star, I wanted to make money from making that movie, of course, but that wasn't my major reason. I wrote the script and made the movie with one person in mind. It was ten years ago, and it was kind of my love letter to this person. I realized after making that movie that it was amazing that I made for one person but it was accepted by communities the world over, so even though I made that movie for one, it can be loved by many people when I put that much effort and energy into it. Maybe the way I make my movies is not to target one million anonymous people but to get the message to one person.